I was listening yesterday to a Charlie Rose interview with New York Times columnist Gail Collins about her new book (As Texas Goes …: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda) and was struck by how she sees America divided into empty places and crowded places. The distinction got me to thinking about Larry McMurtry’s epic novel Lonesome Dove.
Here’s Gail Collins laying out the distinction in a Salon interview:
When I was covering Congress, I would notice that the real debate … was always between the empty places and the crowded places. If you live in a place that you perceive to be a crowded place you appreciate government, you see it as this thing that protects you against crime, that keeps order, that makes sure that nobody puts a massage parlor next to your house, that keeps other people’s dogs from pooping on the sidewalk.
If you live in what you perceive to be an empty place, it’s sort of like: What’s the point? I’m here, I’m taking care of myself, I’m not bothering anybody else, why are you messing with me? And the sense of what government can do and should do is vastly different.
Collins picks up a fascinating contradiction in the fact that, while Texans think of themselves as living in empty places, many of them in fact live in crowded places. But then there’s always West Texas to give the illusion of empty. And besides, emptiness according to Collins can become a state of mind more than a geographical fact.
Of course, much of America’s mythology grows out of empty place thinking, and one only has to look at the western genre (both in literature and in film) to see the central role it has played in our sense of ourselves. McMurtry’s 1985 Pulitzer-winning masterpiece wrestles with what happens to us when we can no longer sustain the myth.
Lonesome Dove is about two retired Texas rangers in 1876 who run a small Texas ranch. Once renowned, they are now mere ranchers and need a new quest to give their lives meaning. They choose to take a herd of cattle to the grazing lands of Montana.
On the way there they have to wrestle with major obstacles such as grizzly bears, snake infested rivers, murderous horse thieves, and hostile Indians. As they travel, the land becomes (to borrow from Gatsby) as big as their dream, only to diminish when they actually make it to Montana and learn that there are others following them up there.
Gus, one of the two rangers, dies from an Indian’s arrow but, knowing his partner Call well, he gives him what appears to be a fool’s errand: Gus says that he wants to be buried in Texas. What Gus is really doing, however, is giving Call one last epic adventure. Call doesn’t have to whither away in retirement quite yet.
McMurtry is far from the first American to lament “the closing of the American frontier,” to quote Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous 1893 formulation. The wonder is that, over 100 years after Turner, the myth still has punch. Now, Collins notes, it takes the form of anti-government fervor, and she traces much of our current rightwing agitation to Texas, such as Dick Armey’s role in the Tea Party movement and Ron Paul’s leadership of the libertarian movement. Texans, like the rest of the country, depend heavily on government services, but they tell themselves that they are rugged individuals who need no help from anyone.
Texas may not be able to play these mind games much longer, however. Collins notes that a severe identity crisis is looming as a rapidly expanding Hispanic population may, in the not-too-distant future, turn Texas into a blue state with crowded state politics.
Seen in this light, Gus and Call stand in for a time when whites ruled the range, and the crisis of the book is seen by their white descendents as their own crisis. A time will come when they have to share power with people of color.
Gus, however, remains open-hearted to the end, refusing to be small even as modernism descends upon him. Suffering from gangrene after an Indian shoots him in the leg, he chooses to die rather than end up an amputee. Be big or nothing at all.
Those rightwing reactionaries who lash out at the change that is coming should take this lesson from him: if you don’t think you can live in the new world, at least don’t take your frustrations out on others. And for goodness sake, please move beyond ideology. Tea Party temper tantrums and libertarian fantasy solutions may roil the electorate, but in the end they don’t address our real problems. They just make you look small.
The world is becoming more and more crowded. The heroic myths of the future will need to be about how to get along with other people.